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China Underground: Shackup And Howie Lee

Talking with two of Beijing's finest local DJs/producers Shackup and Howie Lee before Shackup plays at Arkham on Saturday...
By Feb 4, 2015 Nightlife


Shackup (left) and Howie Lee (right) are two young turks on the Beijing DJ scene. They play a bunch of different styles broadly classified as "that future shit": UK bass, underground dubstep, new grime, juke, Jersey club, the sounds light sabers make when they're swooshing through the air with a heavy sub-bass pulses beneath them, etc. Both picked up on the sub-culture in the UK — Shackup while in high school in Nottingham, Howie while doing his Master's in sound art in London — and have since then been in the unique position of importing Western club culture from within the framework of being more or less native Beijingers. Both are names to watch.

Shackup plays Arkham this Saturday night for 1LoveShanghai's first "Who Dat" party, a new monthly series that showcases Chinese underground producers and DJs from other cities. So we figured this was a good time to republish this interview SmartBeijing did back in July while loaded up on some gin and tonics. Enjoy:

SmSh: So, who are you guys? Where are you from?

Howie Lee: I'm Howie Lee. I'm from Beijing. Well, I wasn't born in Beijing, I moved to Beijing when I was three. So basically I consider myself to be from Beijing.

Shackup: I wasn't born in Beijing either… My parents are from a small village in Shandong, I moved to Beijing when I was 2 years old.

SmSh: What do your parents do?

Shackup: My dad works in a construction company. Before I was 21, my mom didn't have a job.

Howie: My mom works in a bank, she's a manager. My dad is retired, he used to work in the army, in an army hospital.

SmSh: Do you have a good relationship with your parents? Do they know about your music?

Howie: Yeah we have a good relationship… Music, not that much. They do listen to it a little bit. Four or five years ago they listened to it, but now they're kind of tired. I was playing in a rock band before, so it was alright, like 9pm I played and they could come and see. But now I play at fucking 2am. They used to come [to my shows], I don't think they really liked it…

SmSh: What kind of band were you in?

Howie: Like punk… pop punk. Really shitty, cheesy pop punk. I did that when I was 18-22. But then I quit the band and started Howie Lee, this dance music project. So basically after that I just do everything on my own.

SmSh: What about you, Shackup? Do your parents know about your music?

Shackup: No, no. Not at all. They don't really care. I never told them, so they don't know I'm a DJ.

SmSh: What kind of music did you grow up listening to? What's the first CD you ever got?

Shackup: Eminem. I can't remember which one, Eminem or 50 Cent. I was in middle school, into hip hop. Then I started listening to Linkin Park, Slipknot...

Howie: I listened to fucking everything. Everything I could get. I think what really introduced me to music was Nirvana. I was like, "Fuck, I need an electric guitar." So I bought one. I started listening to electronic music after I got my first guitar. I got tired of that, so I found Fruityloops… fuck. I made really shitty music. [Fruityloops] can generate really good results, it depends on how you use it. But at that time, my dad didn't really allow me to use the computer. He thought it was a computer game. My parents didn't really want me to go into music at that time.

Shackup: I started to go clubbing when I was 18, and started to see a lot of gigs when I was in the UK. I went to high school there. At that period I started listening to dubstep, around 2007.

SmSh: How'd you end up in the UK?

Shackup: Uh… I got kicked out of high school. I failed all my exams. So my parents thought it would be good if I just go away.

SmSh: Was it good?

Shackup: It was good, yeah. Of course! I love the UK.

SmSh: After you started going clubbing in the UK, what was the first time you thought that you wanted to try DJing yourself?

Shackup: I started practicing DJing around 2009, some guy told me I should start DJing because I like a lot of underground music.

SmSh: Do you remember which UK DJs you saw there?

Shackup: There's a group called Detonate, they do bass music parties. They were really, really good. I started listening to their music before going to the gigs, but I really got into it afterwards.

SmSh: Are you still in touch with people in the UK?

Shackup: I lived in a home-stay at the time. I ran out of money, so I paid my friend's parents like 10 pounds a week for everything, including food and rent. [laughs]

SmSh:In London?

Shackup: Nottingham. Their parents are really Christian, they're really, really nice. I went back to the UK two years ago to visit them. I totally ran out of money, my parents didn't want to give me any money. I got accepted into university as well, doing photography, but I couldn't afford the tuition fee, so I had to come back to China.

SmSh: When did you start DJing in Beijing? What clubs were you playing?

Shackup: 2010. The first club I played at was School Bar. [laughs] That's the first time I ever played. I remember Wordy was there, he came up and talked to me. He said: "Oh, you play some really good music, but you really don't know how to mix." [laughs] I said, "OK, I'm still working on it, it's my first gig."

SmSh: What kind of music were you playing?

Shackup: Just deep dubstep, like Joker.

SmSh: Howie, you recently left Beijing for the UK as well. Where did you go?

Howie: London. I studied sound art, contemporary art. It was weird shit, conceptual things about society. I really enjoyed it, because it trains your mind to have a purpose for doing something. The degree was one year, I stayed basically one year.

SmSh: I saw your show at Dada where you had that big A/V installation, how did that come about?

Howie: That was basically the final project for my Master's degree. Basically the reason I'm DJing is because I want my music to be heard, my dance music. But there weren't enough DJs playing that kind of music, so I had to do it myself. I didn't really enjoy DJing before, but I had to start. When I was in London I was thinking that I needed to do some kind of live show. That's not something you just do, you need to consider a methodology for putting it together. I knew some really good visual designers in London, so we figured out a way to represent my music in a visual domain. It's a whole experience. You get more engaged with the music itself. So this is the main purpose of it.

SmSh: What's going on with your live A/V show, exactly?

Howie: I play behind a screen, as if I'm in the screen. So I'm generating all these vibrations and these visuals. I use all the sounds to trigger visuals. I call it live cinema, it's a cinematic experience.

SmSh: Shackup — you don't have the same elements of a live show in your set, but you do have a strong visual identity as a performer. You have this whole fashion thing going on… What is the visual aspect of performing or DJing for you?

Shackup: I like making fun of people. People always label other people, like you play this, you play that, you dress like this or that, you're a punk kid, a hip hop kid… I just want to use these iconic items to represent myself. I hate people labeling me, I just want to represent myself in a different way, combat all the iconic stuff.

Shackup styles

SmSh: Do you produce your own music?

Shackup: No, but I'm learning… I'm starting to get into it.

SmSh: I've seen you DJ a lot of different styles, depending on the show… If you started producing your own tracks, what would they sound like?

Shackup: I don't have a particular style, but the feelings would go really deep. Sad dance music. Evil, I guess. Just deep stuff… maybe juke, footwork. Some UK bass, some new stuff. This guy New York Transit Authority from Bristol, some stuff he's producing right now… I think there's some new stuff in UK bass, kind of from dubstep, a little bit of techno, a little bit of house.

SmSh: I remember when Goldie played in Beijing last time, you played after him and sounded much better. It seemed like you were playing a more updated version of his style. Do you think about that before you go in to a gig, especially if you're playing with some more well-known DJs?

Shackup: Yeah, yeah. I do a lot of research about the guys, the kind of stuff they did before and what kind of style they're doing right now. I play some of his old classic stuff, maybe with [more recent] remixes. Basically it's all bass music: drum'n'bass, future bass. Yeah, before every single show I do a lot of research. Like for Mykki Blanco, I hung out with him and asked him what kind of stuff he's into. Every time I have a new set. I have to really enjoy myself. I can't play the same set twice.

Phosphenes by Shackup on Mixcloud

SmSh: What about you, Howie? How does your DJing tie in with your production work? Is it an excuse to get into different kinds of music than what you make on your own?

Howie: No… the most enjoyable about DJing for me is still playing my own music, and getting a reaction from the audience. That makes it more enjoyable for me. I still like to play other people's stuff, and I don't really prepare any set. I have a pool of music, I label it with different energies. So I use energy when I want to boost, or when I want to chill out. I like the feeling of controlling people with DJing, that's the most fun to me.

SmSh: What do you think about electronic music in Beijing now? For someone who's never been to Beijing, what would you tell them the scene is like?

Howie: Future music.

Shackup: Nothing exciting.

SmSh: Why's that?

Shackup: There's just not many crazy people in this town. Not at all. Especially for electronic music.

SmSh: What kind of music are people playing in Beijing?

Shackup: Just two kinds: one's bass, one's house/techno. It's all dance music, but for underground music, there's no one really creating anything more exciting.

SmSh: Why do you suppose that is?

Shackup: I don't know… pretentious or just boring. Not many ideas in their heads.

Howie: The scene is small. I don't know, to me I think it's moving. I wasn't here for more than a year. It's moving. It's still small, but I think it will grow. Why not?

SmSh: Are there other cities in China with a better electronic music scene?

Howie: I think Shanghai, Shanghai and Beijing… I don't really go to Shanghai that much, but there's more people partying. I don't even think the scene is better. It's a little bit bigger, but the same situation. There's no roots. Why should normal people even try to understand this music? We don't have roots here. I don't know that many [Chinese] producers, even though I'm a producer. How can anyone else know producers? There's nothing coming out of here. For rock music, probably everyone in your uni knows someone who plays guitar. But the party thing… Dada is packed every night, but there's still nothing really generated. Until you go to every uni and there's someone doing a beat in their class. I'm pushing it, I'm doing a beatmaker workshop at my uni. They learn how to produce music, but in the fucking wrong way. So I need to tell them, "You're fucking wrong, but don't listen to me, listen to yourself. You need to decide how to produce music." If everyone realizes, then these people can generate really sick music. Because there are so many good musicians here.

SmSh: What do you think of Shanghai, Shackup?

Shackup: Shanghai… pretty international. It has a different character from Beijing.

SmSh: For art and music, there's like a Shanghai versus Beijing rivalry…

Shackup: Not for electronic music, I guess. [laughs] Also, I think there's not enough producers and DJs, local producers and DJs, in each city. Most of the DJs and producers here are foreigners.

SmSh: Do you see any other Chinese producers that you like these days?

Howie: I just edited [a track] for this hip hop producer in Chengdu, he has some fucking sick samples. But he's fucking lazy. I just ask him, "Man, go to Soundcloud, get a VPN, it doesn't cost you that much, and listen to some new music." His mixing isn't very good. I really want to push him because he's sick, but, I don't know. People get lazy in China. I came back and I got really lazy. When I was in the UK I had to work every day because I paid my tuition fee. When I came back I became so lazy. Everyone's telling me, "Do this commercial project, you can make some profit." I was like, "Fuck, I hate doing that." It's not promoting you to do something you really want to do, it's like everyone trying to drag you to do something else.

SmSh:It seems like there's a lot of commercial opportunities in Beijing…

Howie: There are. I did stuff for pop singers, arrangements for them. Like dance arrangements. There's not a lot people who can do it, probably. I was doing that before, that's how I started raising money to go to the UK.

SmSh: Do you like that kind of music?

Howie: I don't like it… I fucking hate it. It's a waste of my time. But I need to make money.

SmSh: How does Beijing influence your music?

Howie: Beijing sounds are sick. On the street, the whole soundscape is different. I don't know how to describe it. It sounds weird. You listen to all this local folk music, they play all these Chinese instruments. Or like Peking Opera kind of shit. But folk music is influenced by that shit, so it's weird. I enjoy it. It comes naturally [into my music].

Shackup: [For me it's] the personality of the people. Beijing people are really aggressive. Really rough. Everyone's angry all the time. That has a lot to do with my personal character as well.

Howie: When I was young, people were more chill. I think it's becoming more and more angry.

SmSh: Why is that?

Shackup: The weather. Pollution. It's in the blood, I guess. They think they're so special. Especially the locals. They don't really like outsiders, I guess.

SmSh: So... what else do you guys want to talk about?

Howie: Let's talk about love.

SmSh: Ah yeah... do you guys get laid by being DJs?

Howie: I have a girlfriend so… I can't.

Shackup: I wish I could. I don't know why. I think most people think I'm gay. The scene is too small, I don't want to fuck around. I do, but I don't. [laughs]

SmSh:You should get on Momo man.

Shackup: Yeah, I tried… I had my selfie in a mirror…

SmSh: What are you listening to these days that you like?

Shackup: New York Transit Authority, him and some other guys starting to produce some new stuff. I think he's the pioneer of something really new. The BPM is around 130 so it's like UK funky, dubstep, techno…

Howie: I used to play grime and trap. Now I kind of slowly moved to hip hop. Hip hop and still grime, but trap I think is gone. No one wants to play trap any more.

SmSh: Trap's already fucking over?

Howie: It was over last year.

Shackup: Trap is like the new dubstep. It's ruined, but there's new shit coming, like future beats, Jersey club

Howie: I released my EP on Trapdoor, which is one of the best UK trap labels… They stopped doing trap. They stopped doing old trap, you know. From my music, they started releasing more experimental stuff. So I don't really play that much trap. I listen to a lot of grime. Visionist

Shackup: Grime's never gonna make a comeback. Too UK I guess.

Howie: I think grime is something... Like Fade to Mind, those people, they're making grime. US grime is kinda different. New grime is basically creating a dystopia, which is really, really depressing and revolting. That's the concept of new grime, which is being led by Visionist. So sick. He played at Dada, right? What kind of stuff was he playing?

Shackup: Just his own stuff.

Howie: Because his own stuff is really melodic. He plays a lot of old grime as well. So the new grime is really, really hard to [make] work out here, because it's too emotional.

Shackup: Too abstract.

SmSh: Like dance audiences don't know what to do?

Shackup: They're not really into that style.

Howie: Trap is easy, it's been here for a while.

Shackup: It's like old hip hop. If you play trap, people will think that's hip hop. If you play future beats, people think that's R'n'B.

SmSh: Do you think it just takes time for people to "get" more abstract beats?

Shackup: Abstract beats are never gonna be popular. It's just hard to dance to it. You have to play some stuff that's really easy to dance to, and that at the same time you really like.

SmSh: But early dubstep was hard to dance to, right?

Howie: It really relies on the sound system. If the sound system is good, I promise, grime's gonna work. It needs to generate the whole vibe…

Shackup: It's all about the subs. Sub culture. [laughs]

Howie: You need to have a whole night, you know, have an emotional seven hours that leads to the grime part, develop to that kind of music. That's gonna work. Otherwise it's pretty hard.

Shackup: Apparently people who go out to party in Beijing are not really into music, most of them. I know a lot of art people, they're really into music, they listen to all the stuff I play, but they don't go out to parties. They think all the parties are shit, all the DJs are shit. They don't want to go out unless there's a big DJ coming. They don't trust local DJs or local producers.

Get the full on, potentially-seven-hour emotional experience on Saturday, Feb 7 at Arkham, when Shackup does a set with Dexter, Cavia, Tsunano, and Luce.


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  • 107Gods

    BIG !!! Looking Forward to Saturday!

  • ludovica.damonte

    I'm so gonna be there on Saturday :D

  • avocado

    I had no idea who these guys were but their music is sick. Pretty hyped now

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